Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s
by Stanley Hoffmann
Viking, 529 pp., $15.00
The immediate question that the election of the new president of France poses is: what difference will it make? It is important, in answering, to distinguish between the superficial and the deeper results.
No country throws out more smoke screens around itself than France. No other country has a history in which revolution has so often been proclaimed and so regularly avoided or reversed. The French like to claim that clarity of thought and expression is their favorite virtue, but that is precisely because they are so conscious of the complexity of life and of their own lives in particular. So it should not be surprising that the new president’s polices are surrounded by ambiguities and that the electorate’s verdict has not been a simple one.
The end of Gaullism—which Giscard-d’Estaing has dismissed as “a moment in French history”—has not clarified matters. Nor has the attempt to present the election as a straightforward fight between left and right—labels which are sources of one of the oldest smoke screens of all, though an invariably popular one, because of its unfailing power of intoxication. These are terms of self-identification or of abuse which conceal a multitude of divergencies; their revival, indeed, is a warning that old habits die hard.
All three major candidates in the election nevertheless promised change. Chaban-Delmas held out the prospect of a “New Society.” Mitterand offered a clean sweep of personnel, a chance of power for that large section of the population that has been excluded from it for so long. Even Giscard, while simultaneously appealing to the conservatives, declared that the message he had got from the electors was that they wanted “profound change, but without risks.” France used to be distinguished by an obstinately reactionary minority, openly seeking a return to the past. Now the vast majority of those who call themselves right wing fully accept industrial society, with growth as its aim: Giscard has even added to this the old radical catch phrases of “justice” and “equal opportunity.”
There are however constraints on possible change, and these are to be found not in the party programs but in much deeper forces. French politics have always been firmly rooted in history and now no less than before. Professor Stanley Hoffmann is fully justified in seeking an answer to the riddle of France’s future in an analysis of its vicissitudes over the last forty years. How alive this history is was recently demonstrated by the violent emotions produced by the showing of the film The Sorrow and the Pity about the Vichy regime. Mr. Hoffmann’s brilliant, judicious, and penetrating commentary on this film, reproduced here, makes especially evident his peculiar qualifications as an analyst of France.
He has been through the French educational system, but he was something of an outsider in it; he has a lifetime’s knowledge of France, but he is also detached from it; and he studies France in an international setting, which native Frenchmen …